The Kibbutz at 100 But Does It Have a Future?

What would the founders of Degania think were they to visit the kibbutz today, after its privatization? What’s the youngest kibbutz in the country, with members spread over two cities in the north? Two books examine the history of the kibbutz movement and cast a cautious glance forward

Mordecai Naor
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Mordecai Naor

Lo Be’avim Me’al: Me’a Rishona Ledegania
(Not in High Clouds: Degania’s First Century)
by Muki Tzur
Hakibbutz Hameuchad and Yad Ben Zvi (Hebrew) 336 pages, NIS 128

100 Shnot Kibbutz: Sipura shel Hatnuah Hakibbutzit
(100 Years of Kibbutz: The Story of the Kibbutz Movement), edited and produced by Eliezer Sachs. Cordinata Publishing House (Hebrew) 416 pages, NIS 118

Degania, “the mother of the kibbutzim,” was established on October 28, 1910, and just celebrated its 100th anniversary. Degania (population: 550) is still an “almost classical” kibbutz, but it has to contend with many changes. Na’ama, on the other hand, at three years old, is one of the country’s newest kibbutzim. It is an urban kibbutz with about 100 members, who are divided into eight groups: four living in Nazareth Illit and the other four in Migdal Ha’emek (the two northern towns whose initials form the basis of the acronym that its name is). Between the poles of Degania and Na’ama lies the story of the kibbutz movement during its first century – or at least a substantial part of the story.

Young people, it turns out, are not necessarily enthusiastic about the changes to kibbutzim.Credit: Israel Sun

Two new books that tackle kibbutz history differ not only in their subject matter – one about the first kibbutz and the other about the kibbutzim in general – but also in the way they were written and designed. Muki Tzur has written and edited a systematic, meticulous book, whose 120 or so photographs are in black and white and whose texts and historical accounts range between pride at Kibbutz Degania’s achievements and a description of the hardships and doubts and concern for the future. Eliezer Sachs has edited and produced a frenetic and colorful album, which includes well over 1,500 pictures, many of them in color, and endless details and facts about each kibbutz in Israel and about the movement as a whole.

Tzur’s “Not in High Clouds” (the name is taken from a poem by Rachel Bluwstein, “Here on Earth”) follows the development of Degania almost year by year and notes events in Israel and abroad that influenced life there. This should not be surprising, because “sometimes Degania saw itself as a small village and sometimes as the capital of the world.” Its members throughout the generations were the standard-bearers for Zionism and for settling the land, but they adapted to change.

What would happen if the most well-known of Degania’s founding fathers, Yosef Bussel, were to show up in the present-day kibbutz? Tzur plays around with this possibility and writes: “He would certainly wonder, is this the Degania he created? The trees are so tall, there are old people on the kibbutz and in the senior citizens home, a swimming pool and extensive lawns, major industry and lots of cars.... Members talk about shekels and about the state.” He would probably say to himself: “This is not the Degania I knew.” Certainly members of the kibbutz today say it. But Bussel, if we continue his imaginary journey (he died in 1919), would probably ask and answer: “The kibbutz is no longer what it used to be? They said that back in 1912, and I, Bussel, always said that with everything it has, Degania’s best days are ahead of it.”

For further reading:

Designing utopia
The Kibbutz at 100 / Dead and dying
Hebrew Fiction / Her memories are mine

People who were famous, in their time and later on, passed through and lived in Degania. A.D. Gordon lived his last years there. Moshe Dayan was born there, and lived there for his first six years. A sad story links Degania to Rachel Bluwstein, who lived on the kibbutz and helped take care of children there after World War I. But when the poet, known in Hebrew as “the poet Rachel,” was diagnosed with tuberculosis, she was asked to leave. Tzur writes that no formal decision was reached by a kibbutz institution, but she later recalled that one of the members had informed her: “We’re healthy and you’re ill – you have no place among us.” Other members, embarrassed, fled to the fields as she departed, in order not to see Rachel suffering. In the following years her connections with Degania were not severed, but “she didn’t forget the wound of the expulsion.”

The first part of Tzur’s book is devoted to the historical narrative – 100 years packed with successes as well as failures. There was a time when every child in Israel had heard of “Degania’s tank,” the Syrian tank that broke through the kibbutz fence in 1948, was stopped by the kibbutz defenders and went up in flames. But there were less dramatic episodes too, such as immigrant absorption, the development of new branches of agriculture and industry, and regional cooperation.

The book’s second part describes Degania’s contributions in the areas of work, agriculture, family, culture, and leadership in general and female leadership in particular, up to the generation born since the mid-1980s. Degania, it turns out, was virtually unharmed by the economic crisis that hit many other kibbutzim, but its members nonetheless demanded that the kibbutz change its structure. Change itself was nothing new in Degania, in Tzur’s opinion, since the great Zionist thinker A.D. Gordon said that every change is bound to bring renewal.

In 2004, after years of doubt and discussion, the kibbutz approved a statement of principles by which it agreed to privatize Degania and pay its members differential salaries in accordance with market rates, while guaranteeing mutual responsibility among the members.

Additional clauses address members’ ownership of their homes, the right to bequeath property without destroying the cooperative economy, privatization of several of the kibbutz’s service branches and elimination of others. Degania has definitely changed its face.

But does it have a future? The book’s last page describes a discussion among young people about Degania’s future. The young people, it turns out, are not enthusiastic about the changes. Some of them feel that it’s a shame that the cooperative model was abandoned. One of them said: “The future may depend on determined leadership that will try to either reestablish or dismantle,” a statement that is true not only of Degania. And another added, in the spirit of Bussel’s words: “I believe that the story [of Degania] will still move forward.”

Every possible angle

Tzur, one of the leading historians and contemporary thinkers of the kibbutz movement, was also involved in the book “100 Years of Kibbutz,” this time as a professional consultant.

The people behind the book apparently wanted to cover every possible angle of the country’s 265 kibbutzim, and of their surroundings as well. For example, the book offers maps for every region of the country and suggestions for tours. It also features a detailed timeline of the kibbutz movement and of life in the Land of Israel since the beginning of the 20th century, and each kibbutz, whether big or small, gets its own entry.

The book divides today’s kibbutzim into three groups. There is the cooperative model, which maintains the “classic” economic and social frameworks. There is the renewing kibbutz, which has lowered the threshold of cooperative living; members receive differential salaries, but at the same time they seek some form of mutual responsibility and a communal culture. And there is the urban kibbutz, which is active in a city or a town, and is involved mainly in educational issues.

The early part of the book is devoted primarily to history. Its chapters discuss central questions about the kibbutz movement’s past, on such topics as education, festivals, art and culture, agriculture and industry. It also includes a detailed “kibbutz dictionary,” of Hebrew terms, like “komuna” (communal clothing storehouse) and “sidur avodah” (work detail), that have their origins on the kibbutz.

Some of the subjects are covered extensively and accompanied by historical and contemporary photos. On other topics caution was exercised, in order to avoid being judgmental about sensitive issues. The 1951 split in the kibbutz movement, for example, takes up two pages with three pictures, two decisions, a citation from the words of Yitzhak Tabenkin, one of the founders of the kibbutz movement and a Knesset member (who was on the left side of the split), and one letter.

However, the book’s coverage of May Day, which used to be one of the highlights of kibbutz life, includes merely the words of the socialist anthem “The Internationale” and eight photographs, but not a single word of explanation. Who would have imagined a few decades ago that a book about secular kibbutzim would say more about Yom Kippur observance than about May Day?

The entries on each kibbutz were apparently supplied by members of the kibbutzim themselves, and it’s not clear whether the entries underwent editing or any attempt at uniformity. One can therefore find phrases that are used by religious Jews, like “ken yirbu” (may their number increase), when referring to the number of children on two religious kibbutzim on Mount Gilboa.

The page on Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek ends with the following sentence: “We are a cooperative kibbutz that looks a little like a ‘nature reserve’ [in terms of maintaining the traditional economic structure], but we are examining which things to preserve and which to renew!”

Still, the individual portraits of the kibbutzim teach us a great deal. First and foremost, they provide us with a demographic map. Israel’s largest kibbutz is Ma’agan Michael, with 1,680 residents. Ten other settlements also have populations of more than 1,000 people each, though the data can be misleading, since in some cases the numbers reflect not only kibbutz members and their families, but also temporary residents and residents of the neighborhoods for non-members built in recent years. There are also tiny kibbutzim with a few dozen residents, whose future is unclear, and other communities that did not provide data about the size of their populations, apparently out of a reluctance to reveal undesirable details.

Leafing through the book also brings up forgotten and piquant chapters in the kibbutz annals. Who still remembers that a long time ago, in the 1950s, a member of Kibbutz Mishmar David named Chaim Topol, of “Fiddler on the Roof” fame, started the Batzal Yarok entertainment troupe, whose other participants – including Uri Zohar (who became a director, actor and comedian, and later a Haredi rabbi) and Nechama Hendel (who became a folk singer) – joined the kibbutz and were considered members whose place of work was on the outside.

Sometimes the bitter style of kibbutz humor can be glimpsed between the lines. The following was written in a section on kibbutz agriculture: “The romantic tale from the beginning of the previous century, of a young Hebrew pioneer who goes out with the flock to the pasture, or plants a tree on the slope of the mountain, was eventually replaced by a high-tech agriculture that combines advanced science and technology.

The modern farmer is an organization man, who on the one hand operates 21st-century equipment with the help of agricultural R&D (which is a leader in global agriculture), and on the other hand, on the ground is busy transporting ... the Thai workers!”

Visually, the book is overdone. It seeks to present a maximum amount of information and a huge number of photographs. The graphic design uses various backgrounds and types of fonts, which can be confusing to readers. The design probably would have benefited from a little more modesty. This book makes every effort to pile on the pride and joy, and it is indeed an important work that provides extensive information about the kibbutzim and the 100-year-old kibbutz movement that cannot be found anywhere else.
Now that the kibbutzim have documented their own movement, the time has come for the other half of Israel’s agricultural enterprise, the moshav movement, to initiate a similar project and complete the picture. Is anyone willing to rise to the challenge?

Dr. Mordecai Naor is a writer and researcher of the history of the Land of Israel. His book “Sefer Lemazkeret: The First 100 Years of Mazkeret Batya-Ekron” was published by Yad Ben Zvi (in Hebrew).



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